In January 1849, William Roberts helped to establish the Narragansett Trading & Mining Company with the intention of seeking a fortune in the gold mines of California, but he was far from a typical member. In fact, in many ways, Roberts defies the stereotype of the forty-niner: he was much older than most -- at 60 he was the oldest member of the Narragansett Company -- and he came from a happy, middle-class home, though apparently one not unfamiliar with financial worries. Roberts was well educated, and may have received some medical training, perhaps informal, and he saw to it that all three of his sons received a good education as well. But for Roberts, as for many of his fellow forty-niners, the opportunity to better the financial lot of his family was too good to pass up.
On February 6th, 1849, Roberts and the 60 members of the Company boarded the sailing ship, Velasco, and prepared to leave Boston for San Francisco by way of Cape Horn. The beginning was not an auspicious one for the group; bad weather and thick ice delayed their departure from Boston, and disagreements among the members of the Company led them to recast votes for officers of the company. While Roberts, by his own account one of the most respected members, was reelected as President, other officers were voted out, rankling some feelings.
The Velasco finally pulled out of Boston harbor after the ice broke, on the 14th of February, but ran into no better luck in the stormy Atlantic. The ship was blow far off course to the east, and at one point Roberts records that she traveled north (rather than south) seven degrees in seven days. The captain put in at Fayal, the Azores, for several days before continuing on, compounding the delay. It was in the Azores that Roberts first begins to turn to religion for solace. While never professing to be a religious man, he organized and began regularly to attend shipboard services and religious sentiments frequently enter into letters to his family. Despite the generally good nature of the company members, and aggravated by the fact that the ship paid only one significant port call after the Azores (in Chile), tensions rose to a boiling point among the Company members. Although they avoided any physical confrontations, in September, 1849, still at sea, the Company voted to dissolve. One month later, the Velasco docked in San Francisco.
Having refused to enlist with any of the splinter factions of the old Narragansett Company, Roberts camped out on the beach north of town and prepared to go alone to the southern mining district near Stockton. His journey, however, was aborted after poor weather made traveling nearly impossible and after he caught dysentery and, he thought, scurvy. He returned to San Francisco to spend the winter and gather strength for a renewed attempt in the Spring. His health was slow in improving because of the high and unstable prices for vegetables, but he was occasionally able to work at what, for Rhode Island, would have been considered high wages. He even managed to save some money. In Roberts' eyes, San Francisco was a bustling, anarchic town full of vice, poverty, illness, and death. He remarked that there are often "three or four coffins at a time standing in the burial ground...and often two, three and four buried one top of the other in the same grave." In this environment of gambling and drunkenness, Roberts' religious convictions seem to have grown during the winter of 1849-50.
On the 26th of February, Roberts turned down a well paying job for the potentially more lucrative work available in the southern mining district on the Tuolumne River. Although he claimed the mining district had degraded, and that the best sediments had been panned out, he was nevertheless able to make several dollars a day. He was meticulous in recording the prices he paid for foods, how much sediment he sifted, and how much money he had made each day. While he did not consider himself any better than an average "miner," he enjoyed the freedom of working for himself, and the higher wages he could make as an average gold miner than as an average Rhode Island laborer.
Hearing of better prospects further north, Roberts moved to a camp on Burns' Creek in Tuolumne County, intent on spending the winter. The Burns Creek diggings turned out, however, to be worse than those on the Tuolumne, with water scarce and gold scarcer. He remained in pleasant surroundings, though, and through his own industry, was able to make a decent wage. Nevertheless, in February, 1851, he joined a group of other miners who were returning to the Tuolumne, only to find that the area in which he had previously worked was flooded and not producing. Thus, on March 10th, Roberts set up camp along the Merced River.